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Exploring the history of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

To assist with the specific and sometimes life-threatening tasks carried out by combat swimmers and members of special forces operating all over the world - a very special type of tool watch is needed. Originally named Frogmen or Sea Fighters, these professionals are capable of performing special missions that include protecting ships and marine equipment, whilst moving slowly and carefully through seawaters that reach incredibly low temperatures. To help assist them with these missions, no other than the Fifty Fathoms watch by Blancpain should be considered, and there’s a good reason why. Developed and released over 50 years ago, it has remained a classic and highly collectable tool throughout the dive watch genre and hosts a recognisable aesthetic that can be instantly picked out from a crowd.

Why a Fifty Fathoms watch?

Although the Fifty Fathoms watch by Blancpain has a storied history, it has remained an integral part of many enthusiasts’ collections. The watch is a flagship model and is still a huge part of the brand’s current catalogue today. The legendary dive watch was first introduced in 1953 and, once evolved into a diverse range of tools, became home to top models crafted from precious metals and advanced complications. Developed on behalf of the French Navy, the Fifty Fathoms watch pre-dates the likes of the Submariner by Rolex and reveals the extent of its water-resistant capability in its unusual name. One fathom equals 6 feet, thus fifty fathoms is equivalent to 300 feet – an achievement that was considered unrivalled at the time of the watch’s release.

Today there are stainless steel and precious metal case options to choose from amongst the brand’s diverse selection of modern dive tools. As well as simple three-handed models, some complications include moon phase displays, tourbillons and flyback chronographs. One of the highlights of the collection is the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tourbillon 8 Jours – a rose gold iteration that offers an 8-day power reserve and a tourbillon. In addition to this, there is also the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe – the first of Blancpain’s watches to ever be made from ceramic.

Whether adding to your collection or looking to buy your first Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch, the design that is considered the world’s first diving watch is amongst some of the most collectable models to own thanks to its unmistakable design and interesting backstory.

The history of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch

Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude aspirant Riffaud were two particularly skilled and highly-trained members of the Ministry of Defence who created the Frogmen unit in 1952. To help assist with the demands of the unit, a hardwearing, accurate and legible watch was required. It needed to be able to withstand the tough conditions experienced out on the sea and remain highly readable in the deepest of waters. Maloubier and Riffaud approached Blancpain and the then CEO for Blancpain, Jean-Jacques Fiechter accepted their challenge. The first Fifty Fathoms watch was developed in 1953 and featured a black dial with clear glowing markings and bold numerals, along with an outer rotating bezel that would align with the large minute hand to record elapsed time.

The first Fifty Fathoms watch paved the way for a very successful collection. It measured a 42mm diameter, which was considered broad for its time. Its prominent lugs were another unmissable feature. A screwed caseback helped uphold the watch’s impressive water-resistant capability, along with a crown equipped with a double O-ring gasket. It went on to serve several naval forces divers in Spain, Israel, Germany and America. It also starred in the award-winning underwater movie, “Le Monde du Silence” in 1957, featuring Jacques Cousteau. The uses of the Fifty Fathoms watch were not confined to these alone, however. Civilians were making use of the model’s ruggedly handsome looks and robust design. Sold in diving shops but made available to the public, the diving tool was strongly associated with “Aqualung” who Blancpain later paid tribute to with the release of Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Aqualung special edition watch.

The 1970s marked an era where Blancpain experimented with different case shapes and dial designs for the Fifty Fathoms watch. It was during this same decade that German Navy Combat divers asked for a special edition Fifty Fathoms watch to be made. The Blancpain 3H Fifty Fathoms watch featured a special dial reference made on every Bund issued watch, along with tritium-treated hands and hour indexes. The watch featured a mineral glass front, a heavy stainless steel case, a screw-down crown, and a 200-meter water resistance. Since then, this watch has become a rare find on the pre-owned market.

During the quartz crisis, the manufacture of the automatic Fifty Fathoms dive watch lay dormant. The tool was then re-introduced in 1999. This generation of dive watches is recognised for its metallic bezel with numerals in relief - a defining feature between the old and new models. In 2007, Blancpain paid respect to its older models with the vintage Fifty Fathoms watch, offering 300-meter water resistance, a black rotating bezel, luminescent numerals and a classic aesthetic true to its original dive tool design. The only real modification was the addition of its domed scratch-resistant sapphire crystal glass, treated with layers of anti-reflective technology for granting a clear view into the dial whilst under the direct glare of natural or artificial lighting.

Since 2007, Blancpain has been equipping its Fifty Fathoms automatic watches with the in-house 1315 Calibre, which features three barrels and a bidirectional rotor. As a result, the movement can offer a power reserve that lasts up to five days. In addition to this, it features a free-sprung balance wheel that is resistant to vibrations and shock. Large rubies are directly inserted into the plates and bridges, whilst traditionally finished bevelled angles on the bridges and perlage decoration applied to the plates culminate a classically developed movement.

Dedicated to the needs of those requiring an advanced tool watch, Blancpain went on to release other complications like the flyback chronograph versions and tourbillon models. Still equipped with a black dial, oversized hands and luminous markings, these watches remain faithful to the core principle of the Fifty Fathoms watch – optimal readability. The flyback chronograph models feature pushers on the side of the case that enable timings to be stopped, reset and started again with one simple button push. They can also be operated at 300-meter water depths.

An extreme edition of the Fifty Fathoms watch was launched in 2012, named the X-Fathoms. Its powerful-looking aesthetic was achieved by a broad 55mm case diameter. Although large in size, it was incredibly lightweight on the wrist, since its case was developed from titanium. It retained all the original and well-loved features of the faithful Fifty Fathoms watch, but now offered an additional feature in the form of two innovative depth gauges. It offered a five-minute retrograde counter for decompression stops, a separate indication on the 0-15 section and a gauge that measured up to 90 meters.

Just one year later, Blancpain released the Bathyscaphe version of the Fifty Fathoms watch. It offered a simple dial layout, surrounded by vintage-inspired design codes. Blancpain went on to add a flyback chronograph function to this watch and equipped the diving tool with a hi-beat movement developed in-house. The watch was offered in a full black ceramic version or a stainless steel alternative and promised the same 300-meter water resistance.

Alongside icons like the Submarine by Rolex, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch is one of the most important dive watches ever made. Setting benchmarks for all dive watches to come and fully explored by professional and amateur divers alike (as well as specially trained military personnel) -  the Fifty Fathoms watch tells the story of its heritage through modern-day dive tools, becoming an esteemed collector’s piece. Above all, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch will always be associated with its legible black dial, luminous hour markers and hands for optimum readability, its screw-down case for upholding an impressive 300-meter water resistance, and its innovative unidirectional rotating bezel – designed for a diver’s safety. If you consider yourself an avid diver’s watch collector – the Fifty Fathoms watch is, without a doubt, a must-have component to add to your assortment, if you haven’t already done so.

Our Pick

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

Reference: 5015 12B40 O52A

Case/Dial: 45mm Titanium, Blue
300 mt.

Movement: 1315, Self-winding

Functions: Date, Calendar, 120h power reserve

Strap: textile

Style: Diver

Blancpain fifty fathoms

Reference: 5000 0240 O52A

Case/Dial: 43.6mm Ceramic, Blue
300 mt

Movement: 1315, Self-winding

Functions: Date, Calendar, 120h power reserve

Strap: Textile

Style: Elegant

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